Richard Thompson was born in London in 1949. But his father was Scottish and, as a teenager growing up in the 50s and early 60s, Richard was not only exposed to Rock’n'Roll, and then Rock, but also to his father’s apparently extensive collection of traditional Scottish music and Jazz.
Which helps to explain why, although Richard is often described as a Rock guitarist, his songs actually don’t sound very ‘Rock’ at all when you listen closely.
His love for unusual non-Blues-based tunings has a Jazz feel to it. The drone-like hums in his guitar-playing, and even in his songs’ vocals, sound like they were ’inspired’ by years of Scottish bag-pipe indoctrination. And his distinctly non-Rock melodies and subject matter often seem to have more in common with traditional Scottish or Gaelic singing than Elvis.
As a result he usually avoids the clichés that even the most left-field Blues-inspired Rockers tend to fall into. And is able to create music of genuine beauty and aching sadness that is increasingly rare these days in the ploughed-over-and-over-again field that is Blues-based Rock. To me this seems to be because he draws his inspiration from the less well known, less well trodden, but deeply emotional, heritage of singers like Flora MacNeil (see ABON 0144) rather than those from Memphis, Tennessee.
Don’t get me wrong – by now you must know that ABON is more than a little partial to a Memphis, Tennessee Blues song or two. But the most genuinely emotional and heart-felt music these days seems to emanate more from ‘outlier’, less Rock-centric places and traditions that weren’t overwhelmed by the great Blues-based Rock onslaught of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Just ask Iceland’s Sigur Ros (see ABON 0040).
And London-born Richard Thompson’s role - along with that of his dad’s London-located record collection - in kick-starting this un-American and very un-London-centric, counter-revolution in the early 70s now looks, in hindsight, to be huge.
Richard had of course previously already been involved in one revolution – the British electric Folk-Rock one (see ABON 0079). But in 1971 he left Folk-Rock pioneers, Fairport Convention, and started a long solo career which, from 1973 till 1982, included recording with his wife, Linda. ‘Has He Got A Friend For Me’ was recorded by the couple for their first album together, ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’, which also turned out to be their masterpiece.
As well as being deeply sad and strikingly beautiful at the same time, ‘Has He Got A Friend’ is also the loneliest song I know. Which is a little strange given it was written and recorded only a year after Richard and Linda got married. Maybe it was only after meeting Linda that Richard felt confident enough to express – or admit – how painful the loneliness of being single and feeling unwanted can be.
Just how perfectly expressive of this emotion – and just how inspired by the kind of suspense and pauses he would have heard in unaccompanied Gaelic singing like that of Flora MacNeil - the song is, is perhaps best demonstrated when you listen to the chorus. Because between the first and second lines of the chorus, both of which are ‘Has he got a friend for me’, Richard causes Linda to leave a gaping, great, longing, hanging, silence, which might actually be measured at around one second in real time but always sounds like it lasts an eternity to me.
Recorded, and all set for release, in May 1973 only to be, as seems fitting for an album with such time-stretching qualities, delayed for over eight months until 1974.
(Don’t read this bit if you want the spell to remain unbroken but…the delay was actually caused by nothing more magical than the severe petrol shortage in the UK in 1973 that made raw vinyl difficult to obtain).
Available on the album, ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’: Amazon